Santa Monica resident and State Senator Ben Allen joined a group of lawmakers and transit advocates on Tuesday to argue for more public transportation funding in the state budget.
Statewide, transit agencies have been sounding the alarm over an impending end to federal funding that has helped offset declines in funding over the past few years. Without support from the State, advocates have warned the impending “fiscal cliff” will damage transit infrastructure with cuts to services and increased fares.
While the 2008 Great Recession hit transit agencies hard, the pandemic was a bigger problem. Not only did it pull more riders out of the system, the recovery has been slower and some of the lasting changes to employment, like remote jobs, will have a continued impact on transit systems.
CalMatters recently reported that statewide, monthly ridership dropped from 100 million in February 2019 to about 20 million in June 2020. As of June 2022, the numbers rebounded to about 60 million, but varied by region and transportation mode.
For the Los Angeles metro system, ridership is at about 74% of pre-COVID levels. Bus ridership is at about 687,746 compared to 871,496 in 2020 while train ridership is at 124,439 compared to 158,823. Metro said bus riders are returning faster than train riders as telecommute jobs likely impact rail commuters more than bus riders.
Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus (BBB), is still struggling to bounce back from COVID-19, with annual ridership in fiscal year 2021-22 (July 2021 through June 2022) at 6,312,168. That 6.3 million number is a substantial increase over the previous fiscal year 2020-21 ridership of 5 million passengers, but way down compared to the last substantially pre-pandemic period, fiscal year 2019-20, when 12.5 million riders were recorded.
Federal grant money that has helped offset losses for several years is about to expire but Governor Newsom’s recent budget proposals delay or cut some transit funding as the State looks to close a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall.
San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener gathered a group of lawmakers and transit agency leaders in Sacramento this week to advocate for a restoration of that funding.
“If we don’t address the transit fiscal cliff, we will see massive and devastating transit service cuts, deeply harming the millions of Californians who rely on transit to get to work, school, or the grocery store. I’m disappointed the Governor’s revised budget proposal continues to cut billions in transit capital funding and disappointed the proposal continues to lack any funds to address the fiscal cliff,” said Senator Wiener. “Public transportation isn’t optional, and failing to address the massive budget shortfalls our transit systems face would be disastrous for our state’s climate goals and Californians’ ability to get around. I’m grateful the Governor is committing to work with the Legislature to address this critical issue, and I look forward to collaborating to protect public transportation and the vital services it provides Californians.”
Senator Allen said public transit is an absolute necessity for economic growth, climate goals and social justice as it allows individuals to keep a job without the expense of operating a personal vehicle. He said addressing transportation challenges are vital to the Los Angeles area as the city prepares to host the World Cup in 2026 and the Olympics in 2028.
“As a result of the challenges of the pandemic, we know that the model has gotten seriously implicated,” he said. “We now have a raft of safety challenges that have made it worse and it becomes a potentially dangerous downward spiral.”
In addition to the impacts of COVID, safety concerns have plagued the Los Angeles transit system with reports of unsafe behavior on trains and crimes at or near platforms. Last week a bus driver was stabbed by a 17-year old suspect during an argument about fares.
Allen said so much as already been put into the systems that to let them decline further would be a tragedy.
“And my deep fear here is that if we don’t act on Senator Wiener’s proposal, that we’re going to make it so that all of this investment, all the promise of public transit will not be will not be met,” he said. “And that will be such a tragedy for us. Socially, societally, spiritually, environmentally infrastructurally logistically and, and that’s why we’ve come together to really try to elevate this issue and make sure that folks in the Governor’s office are hearing how important it is that we act.”
Wiener’s proposal would restore funding to the systems and provide local transit agencies with some flexibility to decide if they need to spend on infrastructure improvements or fund operating costs. The proposal would cover the projected shortfalls by increasing flexibility within existing transit capital programs, directing diesel tax revenues to transit operations, directing currently unallocated cap and trade revenues to transit operations and directing a portion of the increase in federal highway funding to address fiscal shortfalls. These proposals would cumulatively have a General Fund impact of $213 million in next year’s budget.
Metro Deputy Executive Officer Michael Turner said the local system is representative of the statewide crisis and needs more support.
“We need the state to step up and help provide statewide solutions so that we can keep these systems operating,” he said.